By Dale C. Hansen, P.E.

Combustible dust explosion risks are one of the current “hot issues” being addressed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) because, in recent years, combustible dust explosions have led to preventable loss of life. While the primary focus of these emphasis programs are related to the safety of workers in facilities handling combustible dusts, it should be recognized that emergency responders are also at risk because combustible dust explosion hazards can be difficult to predict during fire incidents, and the consequences can be catastrophic.

In April of this year OSHA released a new publication entitled, Firefighting Precautions at Facilities with Combustible Dust, which discusses how fire incidents at these facilities can cause death and serious injury to emergency responders. Emergency responders include local firefighters, plant fire brigade members, hazardous materials teams, and other who might be called upon to respond when a fire or explosion occurs. Emergency responders who are most at risk are those who are unaware of the combustible dust hazards in the facilities they may be called upon to protect.

Several historical incidents occurring over the past decade illustrate how typical firefighting operations can inadvertently cause a combustible dust explosion or flash fire, resulting in the death and/or serious injury to the responders. Because the firefighters in these incidents had insufficient knowledge of the dust hazards located at the fire ground, they unwittingly ignited dust explosions or flash fires by:

  • Causing dust clouds to form in the presence of an ignition source (i.e., the fire),
  • Introducing air (ventilating), thereby creating an explosible concentration,
  • Applying incorrect or incompatible extinguishing agents, or
  • Using equipment or tools that ultimately became the ignition source.

To address this hazard, if your facility produces or handles combustible dusts, it is important to allow (or better yet, invite) the local fire department into your facility to conduct a pre-incident survey. The pre-incident survey will allow responders to learn about the special hazards at your facility (including combustible dusts), the proper methods to handle emergencies, and the features in place to assist them. The fire department can then take the information gathered from the survey and create an Incident Action Plan (IAP) for your facility to help determine the appropriate means for responding to an incident at your facility while safeguarding the lives of the responders.

If your facility also has an industrial fire brigade, the fire brigade should be represented during the pre-incident survey and have access to the information gathered in the pre-incident survey as well as the IAP. Furthermore, as the likely first-responders to a fire incident in the plant, it is imperative that the brigade members receive specific training on the combustible dust explosion and flash fire hazards in the plant and how to properly handle incidents that might involve combustible dusts.

While many plant managers are already responsibly addressing the combustible dust explosion risks to their workers during normal plant operations, appropriately addressing the risks to emergency responders during a fire incident should not be overlooked. Inviting the local fire department into your facility to conduct a pre-incident survey is a positive step that can help prevent a needless tragedy.

Enlisting the services of a fire protection engineer is another step you, as a plant manager, can take to help prevent combustible dust incidents from occurring in your facility. An experienced fire protection engineer can identify combustible dust hazards and develop comprehensive, cost efficient solutions, without compromising safety. If you think that your facility could benefit from the services of a qualified fire protection engineer, contact us today.